SOUTH BEND — Spencer Stastney may feel a little awkward Friday and Saturday when Notre Dame takes on long-time hockey rival Wisconsin at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
The uncomfortable feeling has nothing to do with the 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore defenseman hailing from Mequon, Wis., about a 90-mile trip from the Badgers’ home in Madison, where he honed his early skating skills playing youth hockey.
Nor does it have anything to do with his brother and sister currently being enrolled at Wisconsin. Growing up, Stastney was a fan of N.D. — North Dakota — before a successful stint with the United States National Team Development Program piqued the interest of the other hockey N.D. — Notre Dame.
Stastney’s emotional difficulty has everything to do with having to play against 6-foot-4, 211-pound defenseman K’Andre Miller and three other Badgers who were his Christmas-break teammates with the United States team at the World Juniors Championship in the Czech Republic.
“I’ve known K’Andre for a while,” Stastney said of his defensive partner. “He was with the National Development program and we were partners growing up. I love playing with him. He’s got a really long stick and he’s fast. He’s a guy who can change a game.”
Miller, a first-round pick of the New York Rangers in the 2018 NFL Draft, has six goals and six assists for the Badgers this season. One of the goals came on Nov. 16 when the Irish were trying to hold off Wisconsin after losing for the first time this season, 3-0, the night before at the Kohl Center. Miller scored at 10:57 of the third period to give the Badgers a 4-3 lead before Colin Theisen got the game-tying goal and Alex Steeves got the game-winner in overtime for a 5-4 win that made Jeff Jackson’s Irish 8-1-1.
Since that late-game comeback in Madison, the youthful Irish, with 14 freshmen and sophomores, have struggled, going 2-9-3 with just 29 goals. Notre Dame (10-10-4, 5-6-3-2 Big Ten) is currently fourth in the seven-team Big Ten with 20 points, six behind leader Ohio State and six ahead of last-place Wisconsin (9-12-1, 4-9-1-1 Big Ten).
“Hopefully I can get into K’Andre’s head a little bit and shut him down,” Stastney chuckled. “It will be fun playing against him and the others.”
Coach Tony Granato’s Badgers, who are coming off a weekend split against a Michigan State team that swept the Irish two weekends ago, also feature freshmen forwards Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte and sophomore defenseman Ty Emberson, who came out of the same U.S. Under-18 program as Stastney and Irish sophomore center Jake Pivonka, another World Juniors participant.
Turcotte, a center, was picked fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings and Caufield was the 15th overall pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL 2019 draft. Emberson, a defenseman, was a third-round pick (73rd overall) by Arizona in the 2018 NHL Draft when both Stastney (5th round, 131st overall, Nashville) and Pivonka (4th round, 104th overall, New York Islanders) were selected.
Irish coach Jeff Jackson has been pleased with the improvement Stastney has shown this season.
“He’s an elite-level skater and I think that helps him defensively,” Jackson said. “We have to count on him defensively more than anything at this point.”
Jackson and Stastney both feel his offense will come. Ironically, Stastney, who currently has two goals and eight assists, showed the Badgers his scoring ability last season when he scored an unofficial goal during the 3-on-3 shootout period that gave the Irish an extra point following the teams’ 2-2 overtime tie at Chicago’s United Center. His only goal last season was the first in Notre Dame’s 3-2 Big Ten tournament championship victory over Penn State.
“That goal (against Wisconsin) was a pretty big moment,” Stastney said. “I’m just trying to find a balance of playing solid defense, being good on the (penalty) kill and also trying to help the offense.”
Starting this weekend against some familiar faces.